Tasmania Police and the Australian Federal Police are tackling the crime of online child exploitation head on.
Since launching the Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team in Tasmania in November last year the battle has not stopped.
The Examiner reported in August this year that there had been a marked increase in the investigations of child sex offences - like online child exploitation and the distribution of child abuse imagery. Since February there had been 55 investigations carried out by JACET and 17 of those had happened since late August.
Currently there are 29 people before the court on charges relating to child abuse imagery, with some of those accused facing 100s of offences.
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The JACET investigation pools the resources of Tasmania Police and the AFP together. Due to the online and digital form of distribution of child abuse imagery, it remains a borderless crime. Both interstate and internationally.
Detective Sergeant Aaron Hardcastle is the AFP officer in charge of JACET in Tasmania said conferring between both arms of police was integral to a successful investigation. But what does one of those investigations look like?
Sergeant Hardcastle said the AFP received information from around the world before tracking the online signature of child exploitation material and launching an investigation.
"Everything online can be tracked ... [Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation] will track it to a certain state ... If it's in Tasmania, then it comes into the Tasmanian JACET," he said.
"We've also got direct reports that come from our law enforcement colleagues overseas where they might have got a resolution on a job and gone through the devices and identified victims or other offenders in other places."
Tasmania Police Detective Inspector Craig Joel is one of those tasked with preventing the spread of child abuse imagery.
Detective Inspector Joel said the AFP and Tasmania Police worked closely together to catch as many perpetrators as they can.
"A bust can be the AFP and Tasmania police working together and executing what we call a search warrant, which is to seize computers and other devices that may well have child abuse imagery on them.
"Investigations are conducted around those devices ... we have certain software that is able to identify images that may will constitute child abuse.
"Both agencies can also work independently of each other. And that's really important, it gives us at times a greater investigation footprint."
Inspector Joel said it was also crucial to consider victims in these kinds of investigations, a point that had emerged from, and become a focus after, the royal commission into institutional response to child abuse.
"Victims have been identified as obviously requiring close support ... It's really important that we build a rapport early. That's so the victim feels comfortable to come forward and make a statement because we need the courage of the victim ... so the AFP and Tasmania Police can do their investigations."
Inspector Hardcastle said JACET works consistently to stop the spread of child exploitation material, but the amount that is circulating is staggering.
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"Unfortunately there is a lot out there ... There's a real appetite in the community that's increasing for this type of material," he said.
He said the amount of children accessing social media made the job more difficult with were more images online, and more predators operating in the online sphere as a result.
Inspector Hardcastle said the abhorrence of the imagery had also been getting even worse in recent times and was taking a toll on investigators.
"It's really important we put some strong welfare mechanisms in around our people because they're seeing things that no human being should ever have to be exposed to."
While JACET works from their end, maintaining the safety of children and their online presence can be fortified by parents.
Cyber safety expert and former police officer Susan McLean has an in depth understanding of both criminals and online safety.
She was one of the first people appointed to a policing role regarding online safety in Australia and currently tours the country informing parents about how they can keep their kids safe.
She said during COVID-19 there had been an increase in offending because there are more children and more paedophiles online, but in general instances of the spreading of child exploitation material remain worryingly high.
"It is out there, it is everywhere and parents need to understand that if their child is using technology, then paedophiles will be there too," she said.
Ms McLean said that the typical notion that child abuse imagery is of naked children is not always the case.
"Paedophiles do like naked kids, but they also like kids with clothes on. It's the cute kid that they like," she said.
"A paedophile can't be charged with having 200 photos of kids in school uniform on their computer, it's particularly creepy, but parents need to understand it's the cute kid photos that they like.
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Through her experience Ms McLean has found that parents are the front line in helping their children avoid online predators.
She said, while "real life" offending against children is typically perpetrated by someone known to the child or family, the online landscape is the opposite.
"The majority of online sexual offending against children is by someone they don't know in real life," she said.
"If we can limit who chill they're engaging with online, we're going to reduce the risk."
For parents wanting to give their children space and trust online, Ms McLean said the risks outweigh the rewards.
"Your job is to be the parent, the adult in the relationship, not their best friend. They don't need a 40 year old best friend. Blind trust is going to get you in trouble," she said.
Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant spearheads a national online safety team.
Ms Inman Grant said, "I am deeply concerned by the amount of child sexual abuse material being hosted and shared online, and this is reflected in the big increases in reports coming in to eSafety, as well as our partner hotlines across the world".
"But as serious as the situation is, there is no cause for parents to panic. My main message is to get involved in your children's online lives as you are in their everyday lives."
Child sexual abuse material can be reported anonymously to the eSafety Commissioner at esafety.gov.au/reportillegalcontent.
Crimes can also be reported anonymously to CrimeStoppers on 1800 333 000.
If this article raises concerns for you or anyone you know contact the 24-hour national sexual assault and family violence counselling service on 1800 737 732.
Information for children and parent can be found at childsafe.org.au
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